Matera's Sassi is the historic centre of the town of Matera.
A town and the capital of the province of the same name, Matera is situated in the relatively unknown southern Italian region of Basilicata, the 'instep' of the country's boot shape. It sits in a ravine that has been created over thousands of years by a stream known locally as La Gravina. The town has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period making it one of the earliest settled places in Italy. Matera is most celebrated for its UNESCO-listed sassi, the ancient cave dwellings which make the place unique in the world. They were in fact still inhabited right up until the 1950s, but the conditions in which people were living were so appalling that the government relocated most of the people to the modern part of the town as they considered the situation to bring shame upon the country. Today, however, following years of restoration and improvements, Matera is a huge tourist attraction and its sassi can still be visited today in the form of rupestrian churches and luxury hotels. You may in fact recognise the town from films such as The Passion of the Christ or Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew, both of which were filmed here.
Most people come to Matera for the sassi however there are other reasons to come. For example, there are a couple of notable festivals: the Feast of Della Madonna Bruna and the Festival of Transhumance. The former, dedicated to the city's patron saint and which takes place on 2nd July, comprises a religious precession as well as a carnival, music and fireworks at the finale, while the latter, follows the passage of the local podolica cows from their winter to summer pastures amongst a backdrop of music and bonfire (and food of course!). Around the town of Matera there are numerous opportunities for those wishing to partake in sports, with cycling especially popular, but also hiking and rock climbing well represented. But one of our favourite things to do in Matera is to take a stroll through its cobbled streets and winding passages at night and then to hangout in one of the main squares (in the old or new part of town) with the locals. They can stand there for hours just chatting and laughing with their neighbours and friends and unlike at home, everyone behaves themselves and there is not a beer bottle or drunkard in sight!
By far the main interest of Matera are its sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches. They are some of the best examples in the world of troglodyte settlements and show how they were adapted to the land and ecosystem around them. Despite being as old as they are, the cave paintings are still in remarkable condition and are fascinating to visit. There are, however, other buildings to visit in Matera, such as the cathedral, whose 13th century fresco is a highlight. Two other churches, San Pietro Caveoso and San Pietro Barisano are also worth visiting. The Museo della Scultura Contempranea, housed in the Palazzo Pomarici, provides the perfect backdrop for the collection of sculptures on display.
Matera was built in a ravine so it is therefore very hilly. While there are many parts which are flat, such as the newer part of town and the area around the bottom of the hillsides, bear in mind that the most interesting parts of town are only accessible by stairs or steep paths. Getting to Matera is most simple from the Bari Palese Airport in the neighbouring Puglia region which is around 40 miles away.
Here we have no particular advice as Matera could and should be visited all year round. It is a safe place and the locals are delightful and respectful, so do your best to return the favour. They are a very traditional and down-to-Earth people here as the region in which Matera is found is one of the least developped in terms of tourism so be conscious of this as you share their town.
There are so many wonderful regional products, dishes and wines to try in Matera that you will need a month to get through them all! The best way to experience them is by dining at a local restaurant of which there are many non-touristic ones, or by hitting a market and checking out what types of produce are on offer. In terms of pasta, orechiette (meaning ?little ears) is the most widely eaten, typically with rabe broccoli or the bitter leaves of the turnip. You will probably also find cacioricotta cheese on your pasta of other dishes while you will certainly come across cruschi peppers at some point during your stay. When it comes to meat, pork is king here, whether it is in the form of cooked meat or cold sausage. There are some fantastic mountain cheeses to be had in Matera as well as some unique wines made from grapes grown in the nearby Vulture mountains.
If you are able, you should try and bring back some of the local food produce mentioned above as it is far far cheaper than you would find it at home. Otherwise a good souvenir to bring back would be a piece of pottery from one of the local workshops which are open to visitors. After a demonstration of the wheel, you can than peruse the shop and pick out something suitable.
A unique hotel in one of the most charming towns in a country ...